Marilyn Monroe is arguably Hollywood’s greatest screen siren and photos of her will be everlasting proof of that. Her enduring image is that of a bubbly blonde, but it comes as no surprise to learn there was much more to her than that.
She was born in California, 1926. The identity of Marilyn’s father isn’t known. Mother Gladys Pearl Baker named her Norma Jeane Mortenson, presumably after a brief marriage to Martin Edward Mortensen.
This relationship followed Gladys’ chaotic union with John Newton Baker. Before Norma Jeane was born, he took her older half brother Robert and sister Berniece to Kentucky. This was in spite of a court ruling giving Gladys sole custody. Norma Jeane didn’t find out about that family branch for years.
Gladys was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 1934. From that point Marilyn’s life was exceptionally tough, with some reportedly unpleasant characters involved. She became a ward of the state and lived in several foster homes while growing up.
“I was brought up differently from the average American child,” she told Life Magazine in 1962, “because the average child is brought up expecting to be happy. That’s it: successful, happy, and on time.”
Success definitely came. Happiness appeared fleetingly. Her tardiness on set would get her in trouble, but Marilyn said this was because she wanted to be as ready as possible before arriving.
At 16 she married 21 year old James Dougherty, a factory worker-turned-Marine who lived next door to her. It was a marriage of convenience. Marilyn’s then-family had to move out of state, and to avoid the orphanage she decided to get hitched. The relationship was strained after her modeling career took off. Dougherty didn’t approve. She continued anyway, leading to a divorce.
For Marilyn/Norma Jeane, being in the limelight was on the cards. “I loved to play. I didn’t like the world around me because it was kind of grim… When I heard that this was acting, I said that’s what I want to be. You can play… Some of my foster families used to send me to the movies to get me out of the house and there I’d sit all day and way into the night. Up in front, there with the screen so big, a little kid all alone, and I loved it.”
She soon moved into the Hollywood playground. The name “Marilyn Monroe” was coined by Norma Jeane and 20th Century Fox exec Ben Lyon. Monroe was Gladys’ maiden name. Marilyn Miller, a Broadway star of the time, had her first name taken by Lyon and applied to his latest actress. Norma Jeane reminded him of Miller.
It would be several years before Marilyn really broke through. In the meantime she worked hard at the craft of acting. The Actors’ Laboratory Theatre was a politically-conscious collective partly founded by Jules Dassin (who wound up blacklisted) and actor Lloyd Bridges among others. Throughout her career Marilyn studied serious acting techniques, contrary to her glamorous image. She famously worked with acting mentor Lee Strasberg – who was seen as a father figure – and strove for authenticity in her performances.
1953 was a major year for Monroe. She starred in Niagara with Joseph Cotton, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with Jane Russell and How To Marry a Millionaire alongside Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall. The A List beckoned, though the blossoming star found fame challenging to say the least.
“I am looking for a home to buy and I stopped at this place,” she said, relaying an anecdote to Life. “A man came out and was very pleasant and cheerful, and said, ‘Oh, just a moment, I want my wife to meet you.’ Well, she came out and said, ‘Will you please get off the premises?’” For Marilyn, there were deeper factors at play. “You’re always running into people’s unconscious,” she added.
Antagonism was a feature of her working life, notoriously demonstrated when Tony Curtis compared kissing her to tonsil-hockeying Hitler in Some Like It Hot (1959). Director Billy Wilder worked with Marilyn on The Seven Year Itch 4 years earlier. Wilder respected her but was frustrated by her conduct.
As described by Mental Floss, “Monroe showed up for early rehearsals and was great—when she remembered her lines…. During production, she would show up hours late for work, claiming to have lost her way to the studio. Wilder would have to run 80-plus takes to get one line.”
Away from the glare of the studio lights Marilyn married baseball player Joe DiMaggio, though the relationship lasted a short time. She then married and spent several years with playwright Arthur Miller, who wrote the screenplay for The Misfits. Directed by John Huston in 1961, it became her last completed picture. Personal issues with substances and depression took their toll. Eventually she fell out with 20th Century Fox in the midst of making comedy Something’s Got To Give. The film was finally produced and reworked as Move Over, Darling in 1963 starring Doris Day.
Fox patched things up with Marilyn, but not before a painful legal battle over her supposedly erratic behavior. There were projects in the offing… sadly these never came to fruition.
Marilyn Monroe was discovered lifeless in bed in 1962 at the age of just 36. The cause is thought to be barbiturates but some believe it was at the hands of powerful individuals who wished to silence Marilyn. Her reported association with establishment figures such as JFK was one factor driving the theory.
Her legacy is that of an ambitious and much-loved screen presence, who inspired generations with that distinctive look and showbiz persona. She posed for Playboy as its first issue centerfold, yet her view of what constituted a romantic symbol was perhaps surprising.
“I feel that beauty and femininity are ageless and can’t be contrived,” she told Life. The magazine also published studio-sanctioned shots of her wearing nothing in a pool for Something’s Got To Give, the first time a big name had posed that way.
She went on to remark, “glamour, although the manufacturers won’t like this, cannot be manufactured. Not real glamour; it’s based on femininity. I think that sexuality is only attractive when it’s natural and spontaneous. This is where a lot of them miss the boat.”
Marilyn certainly got on the boat. It was a troubled voyage, but her love of the public and determination to succeed meant she achieved so much in a relatively brief time.